Years ago, a retired couple was enjoying a vacation in central California, visiting the man’s sister. While traveling the crowded freeways of California, the man changed lanes and nearly hit a car in that lane he had not seen (they call it a blind spot for a reason!). He tried to apologize by waving at the car behind him. The young man driving that car, however, looked angry and began tailgating the couple. Whether speeding up or slowing down, the car behind the couple stayed dangerously close. The tailgating continued for miles. The retired couple became concerned, then worried. They hoped the shelter of the underground parking lot of the man’s sister’s apartment would protect them, but the tailgating car followed them right into the parking garage. Prepared to be hurt or even killed, the retired man got out of his car and faced his pursuer. He apologized again, explaining he hadn’t seen the other man’s car. The other man, still angry and saying nothing, walked up to the retired man’s car, pried off one of the hubcaps, and with hubcap in hand, got back into his car and sped off.
What causes a young man to go miles out of his way to follow a couple in their 70s who changed lanes too close to him? The retired couple was my father-in-law and mother-in-law. Later, they were able to laugh at the experience, but it was no laughing matter for them as they went through it. I have often wondered what the young man did with that hubcap. Did he hang it on the wall of his bedroom, a trophy of his courage and conquest? More importantly, what possesses any of us to one-up those around us for any and often no reason? Why is it so hard for us to learn the time spent in getting even is better used in getting ahead?
I get it. Whether playing sports as a youth, or even now playing board games with the family, I hate to lose, and the taste of winning is never so sweet as when, once beaten, I come back to trounce my opponent the next time. In truth, we all get it. We savor getting back at someone who has taken advantage of us (at least as we perceive it) or beaten us, whether it is in sports, games, business or politics – or even getting home faster than the car next to us.
Hollywood apparently gets it as well. On Wikipedia, I searched “movies about revenge” and the results listed over 200 movies, and I suspect there are even more than that. In my own lifetime, at least 10 of the Oscar winners for best picture arguably were movies having a major plot line about getting even.
It should not surprise us that revenge movies are so popular, as there is something innate in all of us that demands justice. A farmer might describe this as you reap what you sow; I scientist might say for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; a businessperson might follow the mantra, I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine. Even criminals often live by this same rule. In the opening scene of The Godfather,[i] a fellow Italian asks Don Corleone for a favor. He wants the Corleone “family” to avenge an attack upon his daughter, who was beaten by her boyfriend and another young man. These attackers were arrested but given a suspended sentence, and so the father wants justice – inflicted by the family – since the law wouldn’t do it. But Corleone wants something in return:
As Jonathan Haidt explains it in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis,[ii] even though we never have been part of a crime syndicate, we understand instantly this complex interaction. We understand why the father wants retaliation against the young men, and why Don Corleone initially refuses to do it. We understand the importance of cultivating the right relationships, and why, accepting Corleone’s gift, the father must now be a part of Corleone’s extended family with an obligation, at some point, to return the favor. Haidt goes on to explain that reciprocity, as he calls it, is our social currency, and one of the main things that separates us from lower animals. He uses as a simple example a study conducted at Arizona State University where a psychologist sent Christmas cards to people at random that didn’t even know him. The great majority sent him a card in return. In short, “people have a mindless, automatic reciprocity reflex.”
This natural reciprocity reflex in us requires justice. We believe in karma. If someone does something to us, we expect the perpetrators to get what’s coming to them, and if the law won’t (or can’t) do it for us, then we’ll do it ourselves (which generally feels better to us anyway). As you watch the opening scene of a movie like True Grit,[iii] you immediately get invested in the quest that justice be done:
We reflectively nod our heads when Mattie tells us “you must pay for everything in this world, one way or another.” We, along with Mattie, feel satisfied when her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney, is killed. But there is a twist in the movie we can learn from. Often there are unintended consequences when we expend great energy to get even. Here is the closing scene of the movie (don’t feel like you need to watch all the closing credits!)
The recoil from the gun Mattie fires to kill Chaney knocks her into a pit of rattlesnakes. As the last scene shows us, most of Mattie’s arm had to be amputated due to gangrene resulting from a snake bite – an unintended consequence of her getting even for the murder of her father. I have heard it told this way. If you get bit by a rattlesnake, you have two choices. You can use all your energies to pursue and kill the snake that bit you, or you can use that same energy to get medical help. Getting even with the snake may feel gratifying; but getting medical attention may save your life.
Please don’t misunderstand me; I believe in justice. Without justice, our world would be chaos. But I also believe in forgiveness and mercy. And knowing when to apply one over the other requires true grit – and true wisdom. Before we retaliate, let’s consider the motivations behind the perpetrator before we seek revenge. Was it an accident? Was there some other, justifiable reason for the perpetrator’s actions? Are there others more capable than we are of obtaining justice? Does the punishment fit the crime? Will getting even do us more harm than the “good” we inflict by seeking retribution? I love this scene from Schindler’s List,[iv] which answers the question of what is power, but also gives us some guidance in determining the appropriateness of either justice, mercy, or even a combination of the two:
In the final analysis, although different circumstances may require different responses, I believe generally we are better off cultivating cooperative relationships where we return favor for favor, rather than avenging others with an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, mentality. If we would be better off building that kind of social network, the entire world just might be better off as well. So send Christmas cards to people you don’t know, say hello to people you pass on the street, open your wallet to the beggar on the corner – and let good karma do the rest.
[i] The Godfather
- Production Company: Paramount Pictures; Alfran Productions
- Director: Francis Ford Coppola
- Screenwriter: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
- Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and James Caan
- Release date: April 4, 1997
[ii] Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, Basic Books (2006)
- Production Company: Paramount Pictures, Skydance Media, Scott Rudin Productions
- Director: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
- Screenwriter: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (based on the novel by Charles Portis)
- Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld
- Release date: December 22, 2010
[iv] Schlinder’s List
- Production Company: Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian (based on the book by Thomas Keneally
- Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley
- Release date: February 4, 1997